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5-Year-Old Karate Kid Sets Sights on Black Belt After Winning Title

Times Staff Writer

Mild-mannered Jimmy Fritsch isn’t someone you’d want to meet in a dark alley. Despite his unassuming appearance as a typical 5-year-old, the Covina kindergartner is a national karate champion.

After only a year of training, Jimmy is seeking to become the youngest person in the United States or Canada ever to earn his black belt.

“He just totally exploded,” said Jim Fritsch, Jimmy’s father. “He is like a human sponge, and he absorbs everything” he is taught.

Although Jimmy has not earned his brown belt, he has already started training for his black belt with his teacher, Chris Casamassa.

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Boy Is Called ‘A Natural’

“Jimmy is a natural at it,” Casamassa said of the boy, who has advanced at twice the rate of most students. “I don’t even consider it work to teach him.”

However, “he still has a million things to learn before black belt,” Casamassa said.

To earn his black belt, Jimmy must master more techniques in self-defense, combat karate and weapons training, Casamassa said, adding that the youngster will earn his brown belt in the course of his black-belt training.

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Jimmy has about 18 months in which to break the record, held by Jon Figueroa of La Puente, who was nearly 7 years old when he gained his black belt. Jon, now 9 and a second-degree black belt, continues to compete in karate and teaches some group classes at the Red Dragon studio in Hacienda Heights.

When he was 4, Jon began imitating students at his older sister’s karate class. After a couple of months, instructor Frank Halstead allowed him to start classes, said Valerie Figueroa, Jon’s older sister.

Jon said he is not worried about the possibility of Jimmy breaking his record.

“I feel just like someone is trying to get up to my rank,” Jon said. “I don’t really care as long as I still compete.”

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Fritsch and his wife, Lisa, are amazed by Jimmy’s accomplishments, which include 21 trophies and first place last month in the Kata division at the U. S. Open Karate Championship in Florida. Kata is a competition based on form, not combat. Like a gymnast, Jimmy has a routine in which he demonstrates various karate moves. Jimmy defeated 50 competitors.

“When (my wife) told me he was the U. S. Open champion, I cried,” Fritsch said. “I can’t put into words how I feel because I’m so damn proud. Not very many people expect their kids to be national champions.”

Jimmy is the youngest ever to win the Kata division, open to anyone who does not have a black belt, regardless of age or skill. Therefore, Jimmy often competes against adults. The oldest person he defeated in winning the national title was a 29-year-old man.

Emphasis Focused on Form

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Because he is only 3 feet, 6 inches tall, it is difficult for Jimmy to do well in one-on-one combat against adults, so he focuses on the exhibition divisions, with and without weapons.

In the weapons category, his specialty is using the nunchaku , two pieces of wood bound together by a chain. At the nationals, he took second place in this competition.

While adults are amazed at his ability, Jimmy appears to focus on his trophies and teacher.

The shy champion fills his conversation with references to his sensei , the Japanese word for teacher.

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Casamassa and Jimmy have developed a strong bond since Jimmy’s father brought his then-introverted 4-year-old son into Casamassa’s Red Dragon studio in Covina to see if the sport might help him build confidence.

Before he began training, Jimmy had become obsessed with the movie “The Karate Kid,” in which Casamassa played a small role.

‘Victim’ of Karate Film

“Jimmy is a victim of ‘Karate Kid,’ ” his father said. “When he was 3, he would watch it seven or eight times a week (on video) when he was with his grandmother.”

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At first, Jimmy had a few rocky sessions during which he would cry and cling to his parents. But once he became comfortable with Casamassa, he excelled.

Physically the same as most 5-year-olds, Jimmy’s edge is his mental strength. He quickly absorbs detailed information on karate moves and can recall it accurately months later, his father said.

Casamassa requires most students to write down the moves he teaches them, but since Jimmy hasn’t learned to write, he had to find another way to keep track of his lessons. In the beginning, he explained the moves to his father, but important details were sometimes difficult to explain. Now Jimmy relies solely on memory.

When he first started training, Jimmy could concentrate for only about 15 minutes, but now he can stay focused for an entire 90-minute class, Casamassa said.

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Doing Better in School Now

His increased attention span has also helped Jimmy in school. “His teacher has really commended him on his discipline,” his father said.

According to Fritsch, it is the thrill of competition and the desire to take home trophies and medals that motivate Jimmy.

“He loves the excitement,” he said.

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Jimmy especially enjoys big trophies, such as the 6-foot-tall, 20-pound trophy he won at the national championship.

Neither his parents nor his teacher worry that Jimmy’s interest in karate will be short-lived.

“There are some kids that come in and it is just a novelty and they just want to try it, but then there are kids you can tell really love it,” Casamassa said.

During the peak tournament months, between February and October, Jimmy enters about four competitions a month.

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“I like to compete, so if my students like to compete, I take them with me,” Casamassa said. “This little guy has tournament-itis and he does very well.”

Asked why he likes the sport, Jimmy said: “Because it’s good. Because you learn stuff.”

Eager to enter Jimmy in as many competitions as possible, his family, which includes his 2-year-old sister, Mandy, has traveled to Las Vegas and Florida. The family has spent about $4,000 in the past year on lessons, equipment and competitions.

To offset costs, Jimmy’s mother keeps score at tournaments whenever possible. If she can get work officiating at a tournament, Jimmy can compete free.

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Admitting that karate has already become a family obsession, the Fritsches are trying to keep their son’s accomplishments in perspective.

“We try to keep a tight control on letting it control us,” Fritsch said.


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